Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Ethics of Psaq, Policy and Pain

Rabbis, teachers, and other types of communal leaders and authority figures frequently have to make decisions. These decisions affect people's lives. For example, if you are a rabbi, you may be asked for pesaq, for a halakhic decision. People may bring you shaalas and you will be expected to answer them. Or you may have to create rules, procedures, or boundaries for your community — things not necessitated by strict Halakha, but needed to preserve communal values or norms. Or you may have the responsibility of giving someone tokhahha (rebuke), and tell them that they're doing something wrong that could endanger themself or others.

The most basic thing to remember, though — the thing that shows whether you're actually a worthy leader for your people or not — is that you need to understand that there are human consequences to your decisions. It may be unassailable halakha; it may be the right decision for your community; you may be 100% correct in the choices you are making — but you may still cause someone pain. And if you cause someone pain — even if it was justified for the greater good, even if they're wrong and you're right — you need to apologize.

Pain exists distinct from logic and truth. It does not correspond to the abstract reality of what's right and what's wrong. And therefore it doesn't matter if you're right. If you hurt someone, you apologize. You don't need to apologize for the decision, if it was the correct one, the necessary answer for what was asked of you. But if it hurts someone, you do have to apologize for that.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

A touchier side of this argument is acknowledging the fragility and reality of belief. It is much easier to issue a pesaq that causes pain if you are *certain* that it is G-d's will. If your theology is more nuanced and leans toward LW MO, it would be disingenuous for the poseq to not take into account his personal beliefs.

7/31/2008 8:58 AM  
Blogger A Living Nadneyda said...

Your post is full of generalizations - important ones, but the whole idea of going to a rabbi for a psaq halacha is that you have a question regarding a specific situation and the way to proceed is not clear, or involves some niche area of halacha (such as medical ethics, for example).

So, I'm curious about what person or situation specifically prompted you to write this post. I'm not trying to pry at all, I just feel that your statements would carry much more weight were they to refer to a specific issue or event.


7/31/2008 11:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Apology accepted.

But seriously, thanks for moving the angry redneck further down the page. I was starting to farklemp.

---Grant Patel

8/01/2008 2:42 PM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...


i think the issue is whether you realize that's what you're doing. everyone takes their own beliefs into account, it just depends how certain/dogmatic or not you are. accepting that you could be wrong about your beliefs is much different than being absolutely certain that you're right and anyone who disagrees with you is wrong, and therefore 'in the wrong'.


i'm not going to go into details, sorry, but it has to do with a community that a certain point in my life i thought i was a part of, and then was suddenly disillusioned and realized that i didn't belong there in the first place.

Grant Patel:

no problema. but don't insult rednecks, please. a tow-truck guy in new jersey declared me one a few years ago. ;-)

8/01/2008 2:54 PM  
Blogger A Living Nadneyda said...

I know the feeling... been there. My solution: (Finally) woke up, left that community and found a new one. It took awhile, and I was lucky enough to be in a place where I had lots of options.

Good luck. I hope you find a place that's good for you.


8/03/2008 7:24 PM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

thanks. been there, done that, got the t-shirt ;-)

8/03/2008 10:42 PM  
Blogger A Living Nadneyda said...

Man, I missed getting a T-shirt? Darn....


8/04/2008 1:19 AM  
Blogger kokusai yudayajin said...

I like how you pointed out the difference between doing the wrong thing and needing to apologize.

8/04/2008 11:06 AM  
Blogger Kylopod said...

You reminded me of the scene from The Gods Must Be Crazy where the tribesman apologizes to the deer he has just killed.

I apologize for this utterly ahalachic response.

8/05/2008 8:08 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Grant Patel:

no problema. but don't insult rednecks, please. a tow-truck guy in new jersey declared me one a few years ago. ;-)

Hey, I would never insult Rednecks. I love 'em to death.


And by the way, you hardly look like a redneck. More like a movie director.

---Grant Patel

8/05/2008 2:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kokusai Yudayajin? A Jewish person from Kokusai? Where is, or what is, kokusai?

---Grant Patel

8/05/2008 2:56 PM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...




also a good idea :-) (never seen the movie though)

grant patel:

i wouldn't suggest trying to eat rednecks... lots of shotguns there :-P

8/05/2008 3:10 PM  
Anonymous e said...

There's an interesting medrash (Esther Rabba) that says that when mordechai cried "za'aka gdola umara", it's a result of the "za'aka gdola umara" that eisav cried when he found out that yaakov received the blessing instead of him-the idea that causing people pain is a fact and has consequences, even if the action was a correct one.

8/05/2008 3:43 PM  
Blogger thanbo said...

A good tape on point:

R' Rakeffet on "What makes a posek". He does talk about the pain of giving unfavorable decisions.

In his talks about the Rav 15 years ago, he talks about the Rav being asked about marriage by a kohen and a giyoret. He was up all night reading & crying about it before he had to tell them that they had to surrender to the halacha.

A great posek feels the pain of the questioner, even if he has to give an undesired answer. Somehow he has to communicate that sympathy, so he is listened to.

8/06/2008 10:33 AM  
Blogger Baruch said...

The difference between a great person and a small person is that the former defends the latter.

8/07/2008 11:55 AM  
Blogger Abacaxi Mamao said...

I am going to post this on my own blog sometime later this week in some sort of expanded format, but figured I'd respond here first, since this is where my response actually belongs!

I agree with you wholeheartedly as far as you go, and think that this needs to be said more often and more loudly, but part of me still wonders why the pain is even necessary.

I strongly recoil against the idea of suffering being a necessary part of living a halakhic lifestyle. I can accept that halakha-based decisions sometimes cause severe pain, and maybe I can even accept the necessity of rabbis (or other halakhic decisors) responding to difficult she'elot with what they believe to be the halakhic response.

What I can't really accept is anyone in their right mind going along with or accepting that painful halakhic response in situations where it is simply untenable, such as in cases of kohanim and converts, mesarvei get (a.k.a. agunot), or gay sex (should one happen to receive a psak that it is forbidden). There is enough suffering inherent in life (death, divorce, infertility, abuse, murder, rape, I could go on and on here) without artificially creating it in the name of halakhah.

8/11/2008 12:49 AM  
Blogger Kylopod said...

"What I can't really accept is anyone in their right mind going along with or accepting that painful halakhic response in situations where it is simply untenable"

I think Steg's point is applicable to more than just halacha--for example, killing in wartime. Whether we're talking about halacha or not, there are always going to be situations where people have to make difficult choices due to conflicting values. The problem is that some people use that fact as an excuse for their own inhumanity. Just because you believe you have to do something doesn't mean you must relish the decision.

8/11/2008 10:33 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

But, AM, what does halacha (or any sort of legal system) mean if you are only willing to go along with it when it is telling you what you already want to hear?

8/11/2008 12:02 PM  
Blogger Abacaxi Mamao said...

I agree that this goes beyond halacha, and that there are "going to be situations where people have to make difficult choices due to conflicting values" and that "Just because you believe you have to do something doesn't mean you must relish the decision."

I just don't think that it's so clear that following normative halacha ALWAYS trumps severe personal pain (I mean psychic pain here). And, Anonymous, I am clearly not saying that you should always disregard halacha in favor of what's easier or what you want to do. Sometimes, I agree, you have to do things that you don't want to do because of halacha. But neither do I think that doing something you don't want to do, that causes you and others severe pain, is a sign that the system is "right" or "authentic." Sometimes I just think it's a sign that we have misplaced our priorities.

Also, it's usually pretty complicated so it's not really fair to boil it down to halacha, on the one hand, as if it were a monolithic entity, and severe pain, on the other hand, as if there were no other way to handle that than by disregarding halacha.

And even when I would personally advocate not doing the halachic thing, I am definitely not saying that you should utterly disregard it. Just that sometimes it is not the final word on the matter.

8/13/2008 1:15 PM  
Blogger Kylopod said...

Sacrifice is inherent in halacha to some degree. Sometimes the sacrifice is relatively small, as in the financial burden that may result from Shabbos observance. Sometimes it is mammoth, as in homosexuality. It's easy to say we should reject the mammoth ones which cause severe pain, while accepting the small ones. But where do we draw the line? There's no clear cutoff line between minor and major sacrifices, and the effect of any halacha will vary from person to person. If "severe pain" is your criteria, the question becomes, how severe? And who gets to decide?

I don't think anyone is touting the mammoth ones as proof that the system works. On the contrary, they constitute the greatest challenges to halachic Judaism today. I cannot blame or judge someone who chooses not to follow the halacha at that point. But I also cannot call that choice a solution. It's giving up. If the durability of halacha is to be tested, there need to be people working within the system and struggling with even the greatest challenges it presents.

8/13/2008 5:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...




9/14/2008 8:11 AM  

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